Wednesday, December 24, 2014

I need to write about being a Jew on Christmas. It is hard. It was hard for me as a kid and now it is hard for my children. I don't know if it is less hard for Indian Hindus or Chinese Taoists, but I know that one of the reasons it is hard for me is because of the specific history of antisemitism, both globally and in the United States. And when I say history, I mean historically open, but not gone.

I teach first year writing in college and we mostly focus on cultural studies type topics to introduce the students to the basics of argumentation, so we often touch on the triange of race, class, and gender. So often I get papers that say, "when there was racism" or "when there was a women's movement" and I'm like, wait, is it over, did I miss the bulletin? All of this hatred seething under the surface, and we are so unwilling to acknowledge it openly. I feel it when I walk past the cigar store on my corner, the old boys hangin' out, putting women in their place, wolf calling and discussing titties over their continuous poker game. I hear it when my liberal friends talk about sending their kids to a "good" urban school, which they might characterize as having enough kids with educated parents to tip the scales, but which I hear as "enough white kids." And let me fess up now, I send my kids to one of those schools. So, it didn't take Ferguson to spill the beans on some big secret, though it sure broke the seal on this pretense that we're somehow living in a post-racist society. The conversation on sexism will be harder to explode, since cops aren't actively attacking women, but enough of us have gained all different kinds of power that at least we are slowly, steadily taking back the "f" word (feminism).

But what of anti-semitism? I mean, is anyone talking about it? It seems like Jews my age, who should be the prime movers and shakers on the issue as we move into positions of power and prestige in the workplace and in our communities and into the role of parents at home, have given up to make indie films and run organic farms on former urban dump sites. Do we truly feel so comfortable? This isn't France, of course. Not only will no one spit on you for wearing a yarmulke, but I actually saw a man walking through my South Philly neighborhood wearing one the other day - I swear! I had to look twice to make sure I wasn't losing my mind that I think I made him uncomfortable. I must have looked I swallowed fish. And it's not like I could announce - hey, it's okay, I'm Jewish, too. I'm the token Hannukah mom at all my kids's schools.

But that discomfort, I feel it, too. Jews aren't like people of color. We don't walk around with a flashing sign on our heads that says, "I'm different from you. I am of a reviled people." Except, I guess, if you're wearing a yarmulke in South Philly. And the hatred agains Jews is so different than the hatred agains blacks. We are stereotyped as rich and stingy, rather than poor and out buying beer with our welfare checks. If we have a lot of children, people assume we're very religious, not ignorant of birth control. If we ascend to positions of prominence, it is assumed we got their because of our daddies or the secret Jewish media/banking/doctor/lawyer network, not because we worked hard or used our keppes.

Planet Money, one of my favorite podcasts, did a story about the history of Iceland, focusing on the poverty and cold that kept Icelanders indoors for a thousand years of winters during which time the only thing they had to do was read and write Sagas. This, the reporter felt, this culture of reading and writing, has made Iceland very successful in an age when education, intellect, and written communication has become valuable. Icelanders publish more books each year than many other, much larger countries. And I thought about how no one has ever researched Jewish culture to come up with such a reasonable, anthropological explanation about how "the people of the book" might generation after generation keep landing in journalism, film, and English faculty meetings. Or at least I've never heard it put so plainly, or even positively where Jews are concerned. It is a truism that Judaism is both a culture and a religion. And guess what, intellectualism, critical thinking, textuality, logic and argumentation are prized in both. I mean, is it really a surprise? And does it have to be negative? Here's the big conspiracy everyone: it's nurture, not nature.

When we moved into our first South Philly home, it was just a few days before Rosh HaShana. As we met our neighbors, who are very nice, very warm people who we grew to like very much, we explained to them that we would move our things into the house and then go to my parents for a few days to celebrate the holiday, and return to start putting the house in order after that. The continuous answer we got was, Oh you're Jewish. Oh, that's okay, that's okay," almost always delivered with their hands up in a kind of "do not kill my baby to use his blood in your Matzoh" kind of way as they backed slowly away. We joked that we knew it was okay and that we were fine with it, but it stung. After all, when we bought the house, the man selling it to us told us how releived he was we weren't black since his mother and aunt still lived on the block. Other neighbors told us it was a "good block" because they didn't have any black residents and "not even any Chinese!" So, despite the fact that I do believe they are good people, this was not the most enlightened crowd. Or maybe they were just more up front about things that the more PC crowd we usually run with. And I think our living there - being good neighbors, being down to earth, bringing food when someone died, bringing our kids to play on the stoop with their kids- I think that made a difference. Although I think the biggest revelation was when our wonderful neighbors Ray and Ricardo bought a house next door to us and presented the neighbors with the first openly gay couple. Ricardo, as his name might suggest, is from a wealthy family in Venezuala, has an MBA and impeccable taste. When swine flu was wreaking havoc in Mexico, he got a big kick out of all the neighbors being concerned for his family, especially when he had to explain that Venezuala was actually an entirely different country than Mexico.

At no time is our neighborhood more alive than during Christmas season. The lights on 13th Street are amazing and Christmas Eve is full of our Italian neighbors cooking up the traditional Italian feast of seven fishes - which I have always longed to be invited to. I actually love Christmas time, or many things about it. I take my kids to see the light show at Macy's and visit the Dickens Village upstairs. The Morris Arboretum has an adorable holiday railroad and I really enjoy some of the more traditional music and hymns. And, of course, I love going to my husband's family's parties as well as friends' parties. I am happy for them to celebrate. The best part is that when we go to one of Larry's sister's houses to enjoy the holiday with them, I feel none of the stress that so many of my friends feel and none of the stress I usually feel during Jewish holidays. Although, I think the stress for people celebrating Christmas must be so much more intense because there is an entire world of media building up your expectations whereas you never really get car commercials pressuring you to have an amazing Yom Kippur!

And somewhere in that overwhelm is the point I'm trying to make - Christmas is the time at which I feel most alienated from American culture and from non-Jewish friends. It is also the time when antisemetism is at its most obvious and most present. People who are able to keep it in check usually, are simply so appalled that anyone might not celebrate Christmas. It seems a slap in the face to them, I guess, a rejection of this value. That's almost what it is. It's as if as Christ has fallen out of Christmas, to be replaced by Tickle Me Elmos and ugly jewelry, Christmas has taken on it's own value. Friends who are lapsed Catholics (you rarely meet a lapsed Lutheran) or "nothing" will talk at length about the "values" of Christmas, which seem from the outside to be roughly about appreciating your family and togetherness, as well as something about enjoying the magic of childhood. All of which is very nice, but it certainly doesn't mean that you can't value those things without celebrating Christmas. I also get comments from friends who ask me to make sure my kids don't tell their kids that Santa isn't real, as if I've gone around trying to get my kids to ruin Christmas for them. Yes, some of this comes from inside - my own feeling of being left out - but some of it is about the ways in which the dominant society is so blind to difference and to their own dominance as to make all other groups invisible. Just as we are invisible when we walk down the street without yarmulkes, so are we invisible at Christmas. And because Christmas itself is overwhelming, I think we are invisible-er. And dare we announce ourselves, via yarmulke or suggesting somehow that we don't celebrate Christmas and I'd actually rather you didn't send my kid home from public school with an ornament that reads "Santa's Little Helper", when we make ourselves visible, this becomes offensive, and the latent antisemitism emerges. People are offended when you don't want to take their ornaments.

James Carroll just wrote a very interesting book about the antisemitism on which Christian culture is based. He reminds us that it is only a decade since the Vatican announced its reversal on the deeply held belief that Jews are Christ killers. I don't feel like I walk around in a world in which people reflexively think "Christ killer" when they learn of my heritage. We are many degrees removed from France. But it's there, as Carroll points out in his book. It's underlying our society and it's there. I don't think we will get a Ferguson - I certainly hope it wouldn't come to such violence. I think perhaps, though, we get an annual way into the conversation through Christmas.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Modernity and Fear

I'm doing a unit with my students on modernity, a nebulous term that I am using as a waiy to bring together gloabalism/big business, revolution, and information. I am finding it really interesting and I think my students are excited about exploring this new topic with me. But it's a little slecary - for them as well as for me. I'm asking them to go from these very structured assignments to a very free fall paper where they have to bring together all of these topics and connect them in some crazy new way. Knowing this would be very different for them, I've given them a lot of small parts to build up to the big paper, but these are also hard and scary for them, and I am wondering if I've given them too advanced a challenge here. But then when I have a chance to talk to them about what they think, they sound releived to be free enough to go out and make the connections on their own. They seem excited to be let off the leash a bit. I am excited to see what they will come back with, but really - I feel a bit in a free fall as well. What exactly are they supposed to DO in the paper? Well, I guess I'll find out.

This has lead to a lot of interesting lessons from and for me. I need to model a bit of the making connections, so I am doing that by drawing the connections across some of the readings and also by introducing current news that relate to some of the readings and showing the connections there. Today, I taught what might be a really crazy lesson. I think it worked out really well in my second class, and it lead to some really interesting discussion there. Also, because they actually read the assigned readings (as opposed to my earlier class, who definitely did not), they got really deep into the discussion questions, which was nice. It was nice to see them get so excited about the questions and I could hear that they were leading to real conversations among the groups. We didn't have very much time to report back to the group, but that's ok.

But the thing is - and here's the fear part - I was being observed through this whole crazy experiment! The colleague observing me seems really great, but it's so it'ss o har to read someone's face when you're doing this really hard thing and they're writing down everything you're doing. I think that either he thought it was a really interesting lesson OR he thinks it was totally insane teaching. He did catch one factual error I made (and it made so much sense when he explained it!), so then I'm wondering what else did I do wrong, what else did I do wrong????!!?!?!?! and before long the fear (that I'm a fraud, not a very good teacher, not a very nice person, not very smart, more interested in showing off than in helping students make real connections, just like to listen to myself talk - kind of true) just takes over.

But I don't want it to. I want to stop getting in my own way, and I don't want to be too afraid to take risks. And it is totally possible I will decide that this is not the best assignment for them at this point in their writing lives. Or perhaps I will re-think the assignment and the unit entirely - that's certainly possible. But I know it will help these students along the path of critical thinking and reading and writing. And I know that it's not the end of the world if it's not perfect - I'm not going to lose my job for it. But that's such a scary thought, that I really want to just shut down. It's so hard to get things wrong. I think critique is really helpful and I don't profess to be a master teacher. I told the observer that I wanted to use this as a professional development opportunity, but really I am so scared he will say: that was insane teaching, you are a terrible teacher and we never should have hired you, that assignment is coo coo for cocopuffs and you need to get rid of it now, give them a new assignment or just expunge it from your portfolio or just give all the students in all of your classes As for just putting up with you for the semester). Then I hear my therapist telling me that I give away all my power and I shoot myself in the foot over and over for no good reason - or maybe there is a reason and the reason is fear.

It felt so good to start this crazy assignment and to be open to going where it takes me. Now it feels harder, not because I believe in it less or even because the students are befuddled (I'm truly ok with a little confusion and have faith that they will work through it) but because I'm worried about criticism. I just don't want to live in the shadow of judgement my whole life. How can I get to the point of accepting people's constructive criticism without feeling judged? How can I push myself to try daring things, even though, they may, in fact, be judged and quite harshly at times?

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Yoga Opens You Up

I have been missing my grandmother so, so much. I look at her photo and I can feel her hand, the soft, wrinkled skin, the ridges of her thin fingernails, the hard circles of rings. I can picture the blue dot between the bow of her upper lip, the one slight snaggle-tooth, the pouf of her permanent. I can hear her laughing, saying my name when I came over to visit. I remember the warm place in her arms, breathing in her pefume, her terry cloth housecoat against my face. She always smelled fresh, she always made you take a grocery bag, she always had ORT cookies. On her dresser, she had a little Victorian chair that was a pincushion. She liked to sit in the easy chair in her room by the window, where the light was good for tweezing the hairs from her chin. She had a drawer full of photos, some from the old country. My grandfather had a drawer full of monkey post cards and fat lady cards.

I don't think my grandmother ever felt guilty. Not for working at the bakery when her children were little, not for quitting over the summer to take them to the bungalow colony, not for going out with her friends or her husband, not for drinking to the point of hangover or for dumping boyfriends or saying no or demanding what she needed and wanted. She said yes to life at every stage. Did she have have that survivor's guilt that my other grandfather has? Certainly, she grieved the losses of her family, but did she feel guilty for leaving them behind? Is that what pushed her to send her other surviving sister money in Argentina? Is that what pushed her to help my grandfather's family out whenever they needed it? I think she was more or less a happy person, despite the obvious dissappointments that come with long marriage, fallable children, and disappointing friendships. I thinkshe was so grateful to survive, to have had the great good fortune to be in America, working hard, falling in love, and raising a family with enough food, solid education, and tight community, that she was able to avoid or get past that kind of guilt. I think it made her a happier person and so much better able to give to others. I wish I could have her strength, her sense of self, her strong moral center.

I remember one time on winter break in Florida we walked through a tropical rainstorm to see a movie at the clubhouse, which was the center of the enormous complex where they were renting their apartment for the winter. My grandmother wore her plastic rain bonnet and my umbrella blew inside out. I have no idea what we saw - I think something about fighting racism in the south. But I remember how much fun that walk with her was. I can still hear her pushing me on the swing in my backyard, ticking off her nicknames for me: Lady Jane, Amelia Earhart, Lady Godiva, Sara Bernhardt. I remember her putting a propeller leaf on her nose. I remember her holding me standing on her lap and showing me the paintings on the wall, Pretty Picture. I remember her letting me go upside down on her lap, and then pulling me back up, Upsy-daisy, downsy-daisy. I remember watching the Golden Girls with her and eating brownies. I remember weekends of crawling into bed with them when it was still too early to wake up my parents, but we were allowed to wake our grandparents. It was the end of the 70's and there were many nicknacks made of painted rocks or with cutesy sayings, and my brother and I loved to touch them and let our grandparents explain what they were, or what they said, and why this was meant to be funny. I remember all the sweaters she made for me and her delicious chicken soup. Nothing was better and nothing will ever be the same without her.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

The phone

Remember when you would curl the wire around your finger for hours? And you'd have to switch ears? And only if you were very lucky did you get one in your own room - otherwise you'd have to stretch the cord as far as it would go to get away from your mother in the kitchen. Remember that?

My first call from a friend came in the fifth grade from Sharon Felsenstein, who had blond hair with a blue ribbon worn as a headband and a deep voice. I must have had calls before but probably just to set up play dates or ask about homework. This was my first intentional, set up conversation. Perhaps I remember it so clearly because I ruined it. God- even in the fifth grade I was able to offend people out of friendships.

And in college, my grandmother would call every week. My mother never knew what to say on the phone, my dad was good but busy, so those calls from my grandmother sustained me through tough times. She would talk first and tell me what she and her friends were up to, mah Jong or canasta or someone died. And then my grandfather would get on and he'd tell me one of his monkey jokes, and then my grandmother - who would still be on the other extension- would tell him to get off because it was long distance. And I'd say, They deregulated, Grandma. There's no long distance any more! But she never listened. She'd tell him I didn't want to hear monkey jokes and he'd say, Ah, whaddayouknow?! And then the'd be off fighting and I'd hang up. God- I miss those phone calls.

Now all of my conversations have become two fingered typing flurries. And my kids will never have to learn to say "Hello, Mrs. Finkelstein, this is Dylan. May I please speak with Andrew?" And then wait patiently while Andrew is roused from his room or the basement or the backyard to come to the phone. Or perhaps to be told he is busy or is out, and could you please call back again later? Because of course they'll each have their own phones and their friends names will pop up like jelly beans and if they choose not to answer or text back, it'll be wordless, or at least soundless. No having your friends listen silently on the other extension to hear how the voice of someone who likes you likes you sounds, and glean potential from long silences or heavy breathing.

I find it all so sad. Sad for my kids, sad for me, sad for our culture of thumb and fore- fingered busy people, constantly connected, but always so thinly, loosely, surfacely. There's something so mediocre about it all. So unprivate, so general and banal and scary (someone can always go back and read your old texts). The diction is so staggeringly boring! I never have an interesting thought on text. I never have an epiphany. I never hold my idevice close and whisper things to Siri. But it's really good for making dinner plans.

I feel like lamenting this mediocre life, which is fine and honest and full of love and joy and hard work, too. It's fine. I make dinner. I make dinner plans. It's all fine. It's just not what I thought. It's many things I wanted: kids, career, friends, city living. It's just not what I thought when I was huddled on the landing of the front stairs, taupe cord stretched taut, my own hot breath hitting me in the face because my hand is cupped around the mouthpiece, my chapped lips grating against the little holes when my plans were so much bigger and so much smaller and so much mightier and more hopeful than dinner- that was only a thing my mother was cooking around the corner where the cradle of the phone waited patiently for its receiver, and I tried to hold off as long as possible from replacing it.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

February Is Shortest Month For Good

Just a lazy 70's mellow afternoon. Jim Croce, Laura Nyro, Carole King on the new kitchen radio/ipod player larry set up in the kitchen. Kids playing, baby and husband napping. Freezing drizzle tapping at my windows, which are steaming up from the inside. Feeling pretty okay. cooking. drinking tea. Oh -- holy shit! Just burnt the hell out of a batch of popcorn. Okay- fewer points to tally for weight watchers.

Saturday, December 11, 2010


Okay, the date has passed, but I am filled with the need to say so many thank yous. It goes like this:

I have always wanted to own a mason jar. Thank you for anticipating this heretofore hidden desire and filling it with (winter!) daisies. If only I could bring you such cheer now that you need it.

I didn't get a chance to say goodbye, but I wanted to thank you for a lovely party. Dylan had such a great time bouncing around like a goon. Best of luck in Chicago.

I know it was late. I know you were so tired after running around taking care of everyone all day; taking Poppa for prune juice, making Grandma go to the mah-jong game despite her depression, cleaning up after the sick dog. And then taking us to see Shalom Sesame. It was so cold outside and I was hyperventilating, I was so upset. Thank you for bundling up and going out to your car to see if my phone was lost in your backseat. Thank you for being so nice when I called minutes later to tell you I'd found it upstairs. I know you need my ear, and I wish I could give it to you more.

Thank you for making me laugh every day. Today it was blue icing all over your hands and then hiding under the table when I tried to make you wash them. Thank you for telling me you had a secret and whispering it my ear, "I love you." I love you, too.

Thank you for calling me short and cute. It made me smile all day long.

Thank you for telling me again and again that I could always talk to you. Thank you for meaning it.

Monday, November 29, 2010


So, we're in therapy, and I shake my head yes, but I really mean I have no idea what you are talking about. I come home from a 12 hour day and the kitchen is a mess crawling with food and my husband says I think we have roaches and the therapist says you shouldn't be such a clean freak. It makes me want to take a nap.

Ok, I get it- that I should work on myself before others, that I have a sickness, too. Actually, it has a name: generalized anxiety disorder. I know that this is a term therapists give to relatively sane people so that they can charge their insurance for their sessions. I'm not a total idiot (though I could possibly be convinced that I am), but I hold onto this diagnosis like a rare jewel, shining from my cupped palm. Aha! So there's an explanation (besides my apparent allergy to dairy) for why my hands bleed into the dishes and the keyboard, stigmata-like. And the answer is not that I'm a martyr.

They say other people can't make you feel anything. Only you can make yourself feel and you can decide to feel whatever emotion you want. I feel very weak that I do not seem able to accomplish this task. I leave the therapy session and I am more frustrated than when I walked in, because now I feel like I have not only to actually do everything at home, but I also have to pretend that I'm not so that I'm not called a workaholic and so that my mind can be empty. I try it for a few days: don't make my lunch, let the dishes sit in the sink, do not fold the laundry, leave the toys where they fall, walk on floors gritty from my husband's construction projects. It feels fine mentally to not do stuff - I read, I make a household budget (not not doing something I realize, but something I've wanted to do for a long time), tell my husband he has to deal with the bills this month and the math that lends itself to negative numbers. But it feels a lot less okay when I come down in the morning to the assault of things everywhere in the kitchen, a scurry of little legs and antennae across my counters. It feels less okay when the baby's pacifier is covered in grit. When the numbers still don't add up and we have to go into savings ... again.

The therapist says my husband doesn't clean his pile of clothes because he doesn't give a shit. This is fundamentally true. I am not an idiot (though I am beginning to feel like one), but my question is why doens't he give a shit? Doesn't he want to live in a clean house (I do)? Doesn't he want our bills to be paid (I do)? Doesn't he care that it upsets me (I do)? Isn't it selfish to not do something just because you don't care, when the other person obviously cares so much? Isn't it caring to do something for another person because they will like it, to put your own desires on hold long enough to get your socks into the laundry basket? Why is it so wrong to ask for a little help?

I know I'm not thinking about this right, that somehow, I am supposed to do more for myself and less for my family/house/kids/husband and that magically this other stuff will get done, and then I'm supposed to be all zen and blase about it, but I don't get how this comes to pass. It seems like if I just sit there filing my nails, I'll be surrounded. I feel like I'm drowning and I don't know how to get it all done or allow it to not get done. Is that sick?